The age of the comedy roast is over
Satirical annihilation has become a sanitised ritual
The spotlight beams down on the stage, illuminating the faces of the evening’s celebrities, who are seated in a semicircle like ancient oracles of comedy. At the centre of it all is the roastee — the guest of honour — who will soon be subjected to a brutal barrage of jokes. “James Franco…” started Natasha Leggero’s demolition job 10 years ago. “Acting, teaching, directing, writing, producing, photography, soundtracks, editing — is there anything you can do?” Then there was Gilbert Gottfried’s audacious pivot at the Hugh Hefner Roast, held just two weeks after 9/11, which descended into the “filthiest joke ever told”.
But as much as these moments underscore the art form’s past audacity, they also highlight the pallor that has settled over it. Once a platform for such biting wits as Don Rickles and Joan Rivers, the comedy roast has become a sanitised ritual, a showcase of quips that hardly go beyond the skin. Perhaps the last time we heard a roast joke that truly shocked was in 2019, when Blake Griffin took the mic to thank Caitlyn Jenner “on behalf of black men everywhere” for giving her daughters “daddy issues”. Since then, roasts have transitioned into an assembly line of safe, formulaic jokes that don’t even scratch the surface.
Yet looking at the roast’s decline, perhaps it’s understandable that nowhere in the entertainment world is the existential crisis over the rise of AI more palpable than in comedy. After all, there is no field of creative endeavour that’s become more dependent on cliches, groupthink and repetition. But while the malaise is widespread, the roast, in particular, looks set to be an early casualty.